Ruairí McCann on Chris Morris’ ‘The Day Shall Come’ (2019)
There is a certain tone struck in many of the reviews and interviews concerning satirist Chris Morris. It is a reverence that recalls the Catholic Church’s official line on Federico Fellini — that he “listened to other voices.” For a recent profile in The Guardian, to pick one example, Morris exists on a higher intellectual plane, beyond the grasp of the vast majority reading this rare peek into the man’s thought process. I don’t doubt Morris’ intelligence, but this is a case where an artist’s reclusive nature and lack of prolificacy — for The Day Shall Come, his second feature, is his first in nine years — allows significant room for interpretation. It also helps that there is something very solid for his legend to be based on. Namely, his spending the 1980s and 90s working in radio and television creating a fair few pinnacles in the history of British comedy (On The Hour, The Day Today and Brass Eye), or any comedy minus the national prefix.
His slower pace this century can be accounted for by a change in medium and in his working methods. Four years of research went into his feature length directorial debut, Four Lions (2010), a black comedy about an incompetent terrorist cell. Morris brings a similar level of research once again to the subject of terrorism but this time through different prisms. One of which is its locale, having departed Britain for the USA, or specifically Miami, Florida, where the main character Moses Al Shabazz (Marchánt Davis) resides on a commune composed of his family and a few acolytes. They live by a religion for which Moses is both its sole preacher and prophet. A hodgepodge of the black power tenets of the Nation of Islam, the 5 Percent Movement and the mysticism of both and the afro-futurism of Sun-Ra, drawn together here to create an incoherent mythos of aliens, telekinesis, dormant dinosaurs and a pantheon where a Santa Claus in minstrelsy stands toe to toe with God and Toussaint L’Ouverture.
The group’s aims are just as fuzzy, with Moses, played well and with a near irrepressible and bubbly earnestness by Davis, promising revolution. Though whether it will be peaceful or not and if not, will they use guns which hitherto have been verboten, is not exactly clear. Yet even the barest suggestion of an armed struggle, withstanding that the group is obscure and impoverished, is enough to attract the attention of agent Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick) and the local FBI division, who spent their time dressing up or outrightly manufacturing terrorist threats and then thwarting them in order to hit quotas, satisfy PR and secure promotions while avoiding demotions. They soon hatch a plan to pose their undercovers as ISIS members and tempt the desperate Moses, who is faced with eviction and the roots of a crisis of faith, with armaments, to mountingly disastrous results.
The road to that disaster is paved with a duelling series of self-deceptions. From Moses’s perspective, his finagling is in part a soft satire on the camp theatrics and inconsistencies of religion. But mostly they are the actions of someone under thumb yet committed to asserting his identity, even when it is in opposition to the whims and interests of the ruling authority. His snap changes in his spiritual ethos and morals then are compromises escalating in accord with the boot on his neck, which of course does not slack but keeps on pressing down. While for the FBI, their scenes of comic squabbling involve systematised delusion, jerry rigged in order to maintain the aura that they are the good guys making the right decisions or just to mask their degradation. The results are bits of varying funniness, including an effectively morbid debate early on over whether going after Moses and his commune will be too controversial given the public perception of the violent and oppressive relationship between the police and African Americans. Their conclusion is that, since they seem to be Muslim, they are ‘brown-blacks’. Making them more brown than black, ergo they are the bad guys and it is okay to dupe and railroad them.
The film then has its targets well thought out and I would be lying if I said I never laughed, but the experience was ultimately a dissatisfying one. The reason being, in part, is that it is somewhat lost in translation. For though Morris takes the advantage of making the micro-community that Moses leads a fabulation, there is a lack of detail in his depiction of American life. This extends to the comedy as well, during the FBI scenes, which are set on that common comedic battleground of the toxic workplace, popularised in recent memory by shows like The Thick of It (2005-2012) and The Office (2001-2003). The former is a more apropos point of comparison, since Morris directed a few episodes of its American relative Veep (2012-2019) and both channel their characters’ collective aggression into a kind of dick-swinging contest, a multi-way race to see who can out-insult who and emerge from their verbal scuffles with the biggest ego. Though these scenes have the lion’s share of the funniest lines, the rhythm’s off. As the dynamic laid out feels more suited to the relatively naturalistic performances found in The Thick of It and the dryness and defeat innate in its chorus of depressed middle class English voices. There the comedy is twofold, in the pyrotechnics of the back and forth humiliations and how through contrast they reveal the self-loathing and yellow bellies underneath. This latter quality is lost in this film because Kendrick feels too perky and her male co-workers, even though they are played by fine comic actors like James Adomian and Denis O’Hare, are too jockish. The inborn insecurity is still meant to be there, but it is telegraphed more openly, thus softening the sting. The filmmaking is shoddy too. Even if it is end goal is a functional vessel for the narrative and the comedy, it does not make up for the reliance on stock drone footage to set scenes, or its poorly staged and framed handheld cinematography, or a bland and flatly lit colour palette occasionally spruced up by the commune’s DIY regalia.
Along with these flaws, the differences between Morris the artist now, contra the one in the past, hung over my head. The former is praised for making challenging comedy on a basis of a ‘moralistic vision’, which is fine on its own terms, but as something inherently praiseworthy it is suspicious since it suggests that troublesome art is only valid with a safety net. It is also doesn’t work as a career summation, because it is hard to square with the man who made Jam, a 1999 sketch show about people caught up in bizarrely awful situations, featuring such subject matter as the forced prostitution of the developmentally disabled and child molestation. The show comes less from the mindset of a moral crusader than from an outward spewing yet inward burrowing soul-sickness. Not a million miles away from the nihilism found in the baroque horror tales of Thomas Ligotti or the aggressive depression of Jerry Sadowitz’s stand-up act.
Nihilism can suggest vapidity yet I found more to wrestle with in Jam, and its concern with how life can be rife with casual cruelty, than in The Day Shall Come, which, it is true, is imbued with a stronger moral fibre. But it is the moments where it puts emotion to the fore and directly asserts its moral view that it most fatally bungles. Especially in the final act, where it is seems to be on track for an ending made extra bleak that mirrors a multitude of real-life cases. Yet Morris dilutes the horror with some extremely on the nose lines of dialogue, as if being faced down with the naked consequences wasn’t enough, and by adding a shot at redemption for a certain character which is poorly conceived, performed and directed. In a climax that is meant to chill by delivering the truth, it mostly goes to highlight the glaring flaws of a filmmaker who, however discerning, lacks facility with his medium.
The Day Shall Come is showing in UK cinemas now.